I met Ad Reinhardt for the first time when he came and spoke in 1962 at the Pasadena Art Museum. I also remember seeing his show at the Dwan Gallery because it was very funereal. The light was all very subdued. That’s when I learned about the idea of discovering a painting rather than it blasting you in the face. It reminds me of when you go to bed at night and you turn all the lights out and after a while your eyes adjust. And as they get adjusted you’ll see a chest of drawers, or you’ll see a settee, or whatever you have in your bedroom, and they come into focus. Viewing Reinhardt’s show was somewhat the same. When you first looked at the painting, of course, in that very subdued light, it looked like a solid black painting. But after you viewed it, and your eyes got adjusted, you would see the directional vertical or horizontal where they overlapped each other. One was black-green, another blue-green, say, but so subdued that he removed all the illusion.
In the Pasadena talk Reinhardt said these were the last paintings. He provoked everybody. Everybody was really outraged that he would say that. I kept challenging him on that because I thought: “Gee, that’s a pretty arrogant statement to make.” And he had good answers to what I said. And that’s when I thought: “Wow, this guy really has something going on, I want to know this man, I want to know what he’s talking about.”
When he said that his were the last paintings, what he really meant was they were the last paintings that a painter could do because anything else would be anything else but his were paintings that no longer extend the idea of painting. There isn’t any more you could do, unless you painted it all one black, but I think he realized that by doing that all he would have is a square and it ends up being a design.
When I met him in L.A., I said, “I’d love to come by and visit you in New York the next time I’m there.” So I called him. And he had a studio on Broadway. It was somewhere around 14th or 17th and had a big window. He was teaching at NYU at the time and I remember his slogan: “After you’ve swept the house, done the dishes, had your breakfast, done everything, then you paint.” He had benches, big wide ones, and he painted his paintings on them in oil, looking down. He painted so the strokes were as minimal as possible, so the painting was made up of these two directions: a green-black, a blue-black, a purple-black, or a red-black. In other words, the black was slightly tinted or toned by red, blue, or green.
I remember I was such a fan. My wife was with me one of the times I visited him. He would have this little board that would come down, and a little peg underneath, and that was a little table. And then he pulled up a bench that he painted on and two chairs, for me and my wife, and he got a half pint or so of Jack Daniels and poured us each a shot. I would ask him questions, and he would answer. I was incredibly naïve at the time, although I was always interested in Malevich, Mondrian, and Van Doesberg and all of that, and Mies van der Rohe.
I remember when we were sitting there I said: “God, I’d really like to have one of your paintings.” And my wife kicked me under the table really hard. And he said: “What? I must say, I don’t understand why an artist would like another artist’s work.” Or, perhaps he said “painter”—“why a painter would like another painter’s work.” And I sort of stammered around. And he said, “But why don’t you just take one, anyone you want.” But I didn’t take one, I felt so embarrassed by the situation. And later, at his show at LACMA, he had a big red rectangle there on the wall and he came over and nudged me and said: “Hey Ed, why don’t you take that one?”
Adapted from a conversation with Matthew Simms at Moses’ Venice Beach studio, September 4, 2013.
ED MOSES is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.